Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo’s Excellent El Chapo Adventure Isn’t Journalism

This whole venture is dodgy ethical territory and it does not make Rolling Stone look good

I’m calling out Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo‘s El Chapo adventure, which apparently led to the drug lord’s recapture by Mexican authorities and a splashy “get” for a beleaguered Rolling Stone magazine.

Call it extreme travel.

Call it Sean and Kate’s Excellent Adventure.

But don’t call it journalism.

The story is stunning when you first learn of it. An Academy Award-winning actor with a hyperactive moral compass and an itchy passport ventured into the Mexican jungle with his actress friend to meet with the most notorious drug lord in the world, Joaquín Guzmán Loera.

Um, wow.

Then you take a moment to weigh what this really meant and it feels reckless and self-serving. What purpose was served by Penn’s high-stakes trip? Was he seeking to enlighten the world with El Chapo’s missing perspective? Was he trying to illuminate the failure of the United States’ War on Drugs? Was that a license to seek out the “other side” of the issue?

Or did he just think it would be really, really cool?

This whole venture is dodgy ethical territory and it does not make Rolling Stone – already reeling from a failure to hold itself properly accountable for the University of Virginia rape debacle – look good.

Penn and del Castillo put their safety at risk. He is still at risk, even though he is back on American territory, and so is she. You are not dealing with people who play by the rules. And now it turns out Penn led the Mexican authorities straight to El Chapo. That element not only wreaks havoc with the notion of Penn as neutral interlocutor, but increases the complexities of what comes next and how we view the “interview” that resulted.

As a journalist, when you undertake an interview with a convicted criminal capable of extreme violence, culpable in breaking international law and a fugitive to boot, you tread a fine line.

As journalists we must be mindful of how we can be used by someone like El Chapo. We must take care not to become the story. Journalists are not the story. We tell the story.

But Sean Penn is not a journalist. And in this case, he has become the story.

There were other red flags in the Rolling Stone story. For starters, the magazine agreed to allow El Chapo to review the story ahead of publication. (They disclosed this at the top of the article. This bothers me not nearly as much as the other aspects, though it’s a problem.)

The seven-hour “interview” turned out to be a meeting with no pen, paper or recorder allowed. So the actual comments by El Chapo consisted of video-recorded responses to questions submitted by Penn after the in-person meeting. This was not Mike Wallace doing a sit-down with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Here’s the depth of what we learned:

Penn: Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort?
El Chapo:
Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.

Q: What about the violence attached to this type of activity?
A: In part, it is because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else. That is what creates violence.

In my profession we call those softballs.

When you stand back, it’s hard to understand what Penn thought he was going to accomplish.

And when you undertake a call for that kind of stunt “journalism,” you implicate the rest of those in our profession who go to risky places to shine a light on the unknown, the poorly understood and little-seen distant suffering.

What Sean Penn did was not journalism.